It’s that time of year again, folks — the now annual “Ask Wolves” series of interviews, where chairman Jeff Shi and a host of assorted senior staff answer questions that supporters want answering.
Fans were given the opportunity a couple of months ago to submit queries on any club-related topic they wished. Then, in early May, Sky Sports presenter (and Wolves supporter) Johnny Phillips sat down (or in some cases stood up) with 10 staff including Shi, technical director Scott Sellars and marketing boss Russell Jones, and then with head coach Bruno Lage a couple of weeks ago, to ask them.
After several weeks of production and editing, “Ask Wolves, season two” landed on Tuesday morning in three formats; video interviews, audio interviews and full written transcripts.
So what to expect from “season two”? A Sopranos-style confirmation of a winning format and formula full of must-see content? Or a Prison Break-esque flop — ie, yeah we get it guys, but don’t bother with season three?
Well, The Athletic has sat through all 11 interviews; three hours and 37 minutes worth, or 38,555 words (and you thought Athletic long reads were lengthy) so you don’t have to.
Before we get into all that, in terms of production and packaging, the Wolves media team have worked wonders once again.
Fancy new cameras, slick editing and excellent presentation over three formats, that’s no mean feat. The guys that brought you Raul Jimenez: Code Red (who won an industry award this week) are leaders in their field, certainly for a club of Wolves’ size.
Also, the format works far better this year in terms of everyone being interviewed separately, rather than last year’s occasionally awkward round table (no one wants to be interviewed while their boss is sitting right there).
But what about the all-important content?
There’s a lot to chew on, so let’s get right to it.
Shi’s interview will be both the most-watched and inevitably the most-derided of the 11 — certainly on social media, where the tide of public opinion has started to turn in the past two years regarding Fosun’s ambitions and spending plans.
In terms of those ambitions, Shi continues to talk of long-term progress, of stability, of growth. Not of spending their way into the top six, in a manner Newcastle United and Aston Villa may try to do.
Yes, Wolves may “do a Leicester“, he says. Or they may finish in the top four next season. But staying competitive in the long term is the overall goal.
There’s lots of talk of the Wolves brand, of esports, of expanding the club overseas, which has been on the menu for a few years now, but Shi is probably a bit more frank than he has been before on not doing things to please the local fanbase.
He says: “We don’t want the owner to lose the money, then wash his hands, then be gone. Too many failed cases like this happened in the last 10 years. How many owners have done this: bought a club, sold a club and then be gone, losing £100 million, £200 million?
“We don’t want to do this and if we’re talking about the priority, we always put the owner’s safety, the staff’s growth, maybe ahead of fans’ requirements for one or two more players.
“I’m very honest on this, and also eventually I think for the long-term future, it’s better for the fanbase to understand that and also it’s better for the club.”
Realistically, Wolves can’t spend huge money to break into that top bracket, Shi admits.
He also concedes he was wrong to suggest, a few years ago, that they would try to emulate Manchester City.
“People all grow up, so don’t just try to grab something I said 10 years ago, six years ago, to say, ‘Oh, Jeff, you have said so’. I think it’s a kind of trick, it’s not the right debate.”
Self-sustainability remains the name of the game for the owners, as it has for the past three years now, predating the pandemic. Financial fair play rules, from both the Premier League and UEFA, are hindering Wolves, Shi says.
He insists Wolves can compete with a club such as Newcastle (“yes, they can spend more, but also they will reach a ceiling sooner or later, so they will face the same challenges as we are facing now”) and that Wolves need to be creative to raise their ceiling — ie, increase their revenues and therefore their spending power.
When asked if Wolves will spend money on players, he says any decision has to have a long-term benefit.
He speaks to Fosun every month, then every quarter, about the financial situation, but “they don’t interfere too much” and are happy to be an investor and want Wolves to be successful. He also reiterates they are looking for more investment in Wolves following on from the Peak6 agreement last year and in Fosun Sports Group,
Shi adds: “But if you have no long-term sustainable financial, commercial environment… it’s like a plaything for a rich man: you can pay the money for two or three years, then you will be bored by this.
“We don’t want to be a plaything, we want to be a well-run business.”
Matt Wild, Wolves’ general manager of football operations, talks of Fosun’s commitment: “I think it’s twofold: as a club, as executives of the club, we want to be financially sustainable and we want to be looking at ways ourselves to explore avenues of increasing our revenue, maybe looking at financing options, both through debt and equity. But it’s a collaborative approach, it’s very much a team effort.”
There’s talk of improving the squad and making it younger, again via the low net spend we have seen from Wolves since 2020.
“We will have a new team, for sure,” Shi says, terming this summer’s strategy as optimising or reshuffling the group of players, without putting a figure on how much they will spend.
Technical director Sellars talks of looking at one or two key positions to address and that improving the team has grown harder in the past couple of years.
“I think it has become more difficult, because we’re now a Premier League club that’s now established,” Sellars says. “It’s very difficult to always find players better than what you’ve got; at that point (talking about the hugely successful 2018 window), it probably was easier, but I think that we are always looking to progress and if there’s a player out there that can make us better and we’ve got the money to spend and we think it’s the right deal, we’ll certainly try to do that.”
Both Sellars and Shi give the impression that for a player at the right age, for the right price and with the potential for a high resale value, money is available to spend. But in general, it’s a sell-to-buy approach — ie, if Wolves want to spend £50 million this summer, they’ll have to generate that money through sales. The futures of Adama Traore and Ruben Neves aren’t definitively addressed, although Sellars says that, ideally, the latter will stay.
Sellars adds: “We’re always looking and we’re always doing something and I’d like to think if we really need to, then I can speak to the chairman and maybe he can help in that way, but it is difficult and I’m realistic.
“There’s probably some players that will be moving out and I’ll certainly be pushing and driving hard to get that money to spend. I certainly get the sense that would be the feeling of what I’m allowed to do, so anything that does happen I want to spend the money and certainly try to improve the squad and try to make us progress.”
Lage’s interview is, at 53 minutes, the longest, and he comes across as confident, comfortable and positive about the future. This is similar to how he is in press conferences, but it’s only snippets from those or his post-match interviews that most supporters will see.
In a longer format, Lage’s passion and intelligence shine. He can babble or meander too, sure, which perhaps makes those messages harder to decipher.
Some key quotes about the 2022-23 season: “I’m very excited for the next months because they’re going to be very important to define where we want to go.
“So the main point now is that — to build the squad that can give us solutions for everything we want. We have our identity, but after, game by game, different solutions, different problems, different dynamics and also different moments of the season.
“As you know, a season is long and we need a squad with balance, quality. Of course, Wolves cannot have 21 top players, but I think we can have a solid 11, 13, 14 good players with experience in the Premier League and also to have chances for kids like Toti (Gomes) or Yerson (Mosquera) or Chiquinho, and kids like Luke (Cundle), in the first team, so that’s the mix of these three things that we need to build the next team.”
Lage says he wants greater tactical flexibility, better options across the squad, more height and more aggressive defenders.
He also speaks in glowing terms about the club’s supporters.
“We are working for the fans,” he says. “We know now modern football is a little bit different, it’s more like an industry. We need to understand also the policy of the club, but in the end, what is the point? The point is the fans; we are working for the fans and, to be honest, these fans, they were there since the first day.
“This is a massive club. Clubs can be big in two situations: clubs who win trophies or you can see the clubs by the fans and that means a lot because everywhere I go, I can see the support of the fans.”
Some really interesting stuff here from marketing boss Jones in relation to the Steve Bull Stand in particular.
Stadium redevelopment isn’t off the agenda at Molineux, something Shi told The Athletic in September, but it has taken a back seat with Wolves preferring to spend on the team or the training ground.
Jones did expand, though, on the idea of, er, expansion, saying the redevelopment of the lower tier of the Steve Bull would cost £16 million to £20 million and that it would take 15 years for Wolves to see a return on that investment.
The Steve Bull Stand was built in 1979, but it includes brickwork dating to Victorian times. It’s a relic, basically.
Jones says there’s a nine-stage plan to redevelop the stand and that Wolves are fortunate it was built in two complete sections, upper and lower, meaning they can potentially demolish the lower part and “reprofile” it up to the second row of LED adverts (above the executive boxes). By making the whole thing less steep, they can add 1,100 seats, bring the stand closer to the pitch, redo the executive boxes, increase concourse space and build a restaurant within the stand.
They could also rehouse away fans by changing the exit points of the stand. At the moment, visiting clubs’ supporters have to be in the lower tier due to those exits (ie, it’s currently impossible to segregate home and away fans when they leave the stadium) but Wolves could potentially house them in both the upper and lower tiers, as happens at Aston Villa.
None of this is happening yet, but the club are clearly thinking about it.
Jones says: “So, it is a considerable investment, it’s also a long payback, so again these are commercial factors that we have to consider. But is it something that we want to do? Of course. We are very aware that we’re leaving opportunities financially on the table by not investing in this stand.”
Jones also expands on what Shi has previously said about interest rates being an issue and that Wolves are looking at private equity or government funding, in conjunction with the council.
He adds regarding the South Bank, where it’s previously been mooted Wolves could expand to have one huge single-tier stand with a capacity of 10,000: “Again (it is) part of our plans, but that’s a £30 million investment, and of course what comes with that is a significant interest from funding.
“It’s something we’re working at, because we need to try to find the best possible interest rates to be able to support that finance that’s required.”
Immediate priorities clearly lie elsewhere, with Jones saying that commercial returns come much faster in areas such as esports, music or fashion than from stadium redevelopment, albeit Wolves are aware Molineux needs updating and improving.
Relationship with fans
High risk of antagonism here, with Shi suggesting local supporters on social media are “not totally on the same page” but fans from across the world in America, China et cetera are more interested in esports, are new to Wolves and “for the majority, we are on the same page because most of them hope we have a bright future and they know where we are and they know we’re always challenging hard”.
Although he did add that a small portion of fans who hope Wolves can do things that the club feel are out of their reach are “inspiring us to do better”. Diplomacy at its finest.
Shi also adds on Wolves supporters in other countries: “They are more and more important. First, it’s like a family, you want more and more fans joining the family; and also, with a bigger fanbase you have a much bigger power commercially to attract partners, sponsors, even sell more merchandise around the world, and it will help us to have a much better commercial power to compete with the top six.
“Otherwise, if you only leverage the maybe 200,000 fans here in Wolverhampton, I think it’s no use, because you cannot compete with maybe 100 million fans for Man United; so it’s very important to have the attraction, to attract all the eyeballs around the world and make our fanbase much bigger than the local area, then we have the chance to be a global powerhouse, then it’s the starting point to be a worldwide club.”
If you’re reading this in California or Beijing, you may be smiling.
If you’re in Oxley, you may be grimacing.
There’s lots of talk of the Wolves brand. In fact, Shi says the word “brand” 12 times in his interview. He says “esports” eight times. And he doesn’t say “new £50 million centre-back” once. Typical.
Raul Jimenez and Hwang Hee-chan are both evidently very important to growing that brand overseas.
Jones says of the 1.5 million views of the Code Red documentary on YouTube, 80 per cent were from Jimenez’s Mexican homeland. He believes Wolves can still maintain a fanbase in Mexico after Jimenez leaves the club.
As for South Korea’s Hwang, Shi doesn’t reference the player directly but says: ” I think it’s very hard to convince a Chinese fan to support Wolves without any element from Asia, from China, so you need to have some emotional attachment included in the club.”
He speaks of needing “local heroes” for fans in China, America and Africa to grow attached to Wolves and for the club to build its brand.
Esports is a massive deal to the club — and they hope it’ll make them a massive amount of money.
Jones says there has been “huge growth” in the club’s fanbase in esports, particularly in China where Wolves have six professional teams, one of which has 20 million social media followers.
“So, in China, for example, we’d be better known as an esports team rather than a football team,” he says. “So, for us, it’s an opportunity to engage with a brand new audience, an audience that may not have heard of us before as a football club. So, again, it’s another pillar of our story.
“There are over 350 million registered users of Fortnite, so to have Wolves skins within the game is a huge benefit for us. We were able to turn that into a tangible product of, sort of, 2,000 replica jerseys, which sold out in 48 hours. So, we are already seeing tangible benefits. Our teams in China, which have over 20 million social followers, are already recording some really good sponsorship revenues, so we are already starting to see those tangible benefits.”
Jones points to Wolves being 17th in the recently-published Deloitte money league, albeit still 600 per cent (in financial terms) behind Tottenham and 1,000 per cent away from Manchester United.
“We need to do things slightly differently from them in order to catch them, which is why fans are hearing quite a lot about Wolves Records, hearing a lot about Wolves esports, about Wolves fashion,” he adds.
“These are the ways in which we are trying to be different, so when we can talk to potential commercial partners, we’ve got a different story to the likes of Leeds, Newcastle and Southampton — and it is starting to reap real benefits for us.”
In terms of direct benefits to the football team, the answers are less clear, but the Wolves brand does appear to be growing.
This, from Shi, sums it up: “I also read some social media content, and I see it’s not so easy to reach a consensus on this, but I’m the leader now for the team, so I want to say to the fans very clearly: we put the organisation as a corporate first rather than a club.”
Commercial boss Vinny Clark took the flak for last season’s ticket price increase. This year, Wolves put prices up again, and with no press release or interview to accompany the announcement. For some, the increase was hard to stomach.
Clark insists the club are “acutely aware” of the cost of living crisis and the impact it will have on people in Wolverhampton.
He pointed to several changes which Wolves believe will benefit their supporters, including getting rid of the direct debit fee, stretching direct debit payments to be over nine months instead of six, removing admin fees and freezing prices in a new 18-to-21 age bracket.
Clark adds: “I think that what a lot of clubs do, which we’ve not done in the past, and won’t do going forward, is they have a real headline-grabbing low price and every year that’s the number that’s floated around and clubs can get some really favourable PR by doing that.
“I think some really good examples of that: West Ham next year have got a season ticket at £299, they’ve also got a season ticket at £1,500. That happens with clubs in and around us. Brighton are another one; they’ve got a £545 cheapest, but then they’ve got an £860. Where we are on that is that our cheapest season ticket is more expensive than all of those three clubs, so our cheapest season ticket for renewal next year will be £590, but actually our most expensive will be £786, which is lower than all of those clubs I’ve just mentioned.
“We feel that the pricing we’ve got in for next year is again fair, reasonable; we’re wanting to price at the market value of a mid-table Premier League club, and I think we’ve achieved that.
“We think that we’re in a pretty good place in terms of fans receiving the best product for the price they’re paying.”
The women’s team missed out on promotion to the second tier, losing a play-off against Southampton earlier this month. But the future for Wolves Women looks bright nonetheless, with talk here of a potential new stadium, possibly streaming more of their games or playing them immediately before men’s first team or under-23 matches to help attract more fans. There is also the potential challenge of going professional.
Laura Nicholls, head of academy operations, says a permanent home for Wolves Women would be ideal.
“I think it’s definitely something that we’d want to consider in the future,” she says. “I think Compton Park, as it is at the moment, doesn’t really lend itself to creating that here, and Wolverhampton is quite a densely-populated city, so there’s lots of challenges with that. But I think it’s something that we’d definitely want to consider for the future.”
On streaming more games, she says: “We’ve got the highest attendance in the league for our level of football. I think we’ve got to get the balance right: if we stream everything, does that mean supporters can’t come to the game and vice versa?
“I think the game that we had at Molineux recently, the amount of fans that stayed behind to build relationships with the players, that’s what we want. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it, and I want young boys and girls to see our female players as role models and we want to make sure they’ve got a connectivity, so I think we’ve got to get the balance right.”
And on playing women’s games immediately before men’s games at Molineux, Nicholls adds: “We’ve had lots of discussions internally about the practicalities of doing it. I think we’re tasked all the time as a football club to be creative, that’s certainly a creative way to get more fans for the female team.
“I went to The Hundred last summer and I saw both the male and female teams and thought what a great experience that was — and great exposure for the female cricketers.
“I think the practicalities will be challenging if I’m being really honest, and the gap between the games that you might need to have might lose the appeal. Maybe we need to be creative with the 23s, maybe that’s the actual angle of approach, because one of the things we want to strive for next season is to get more people watching the 23s as well, so maybe we need to do both.”
Any other business?
Something that hasn’t been discussed by Shi before is the prospect of Fosun Sports Group being publicly floated, which he says he’s confident will happen at some point (in the next five years) when the club have larger revenues, a higher market share and a better IPO (initial public offering) for the stock market.
He says the wider offering of Fosun Sports Group (ie, not just Wolves the football club, but also its offshoots in esports, music and fashion) would help them stand out.
“It’s a logical step, because we’re not positioning ourselves only as a club, so we’re not benchmarking Manchester United or whoever. We have a unique story to tell the world and we’re doing something very interesting, in how many fans we’re having, how they like the brand or the logo or the club. So we have our own story, but it’s different, it’s definitely different from Man United or other clubs.”
A few other things of note…
Shi is adamant that the course he and Fosun are steering is the right one for long-term growth, for sustainability and for financial stability. It’s hard to argue with that logic from a financial or an investment standpoint, but supporters who want to see Lage and the team be given the best possible chance of doing something special next season are likely to be disappointed by what they have read and watched.
There are clear disparities between traditional footballing aims (Lage saying it’s all for the fans and recently dreaming of Europe et cetera) and investing money in the team to climb the league table, and Fosun’s corporate, brand-based goals, with “telling the Wolves story” to new audiences and growing things slowly and sustainably.
The benefits of esports, music, fashion et cetera may at some point be plentiful and fruitful, but in terms of challenging the top six, competing for honours or redeveloping the stadium — aka, the things most fans are seriously passionate about — patience is going to be required.
(Top image: Wolves)
It’s that time of year again, folks — the now annual “Ask Wolves” series of interviews, where chairman Jeff Shi and a host of assorted senior staff answer questions that supporters want answering.